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The learning turn in education and training:
liberatory paradigm or oppressive ideology?

Len Holmes, Management Research Centre,
London Metropolitan University (at time of presentation)

Paper presented at 'Critique and Inclusivity: Opening the Agenda',
3rd International Critical Management Studies Conference, Manchester July 2003

Stream: A Critical Turn in HRD

Conference Draft: Please do not quote without permission.

Introduction: The learning turn

Over the past couple of decades the discourses of education and training, whether relating to theory, policy or practice, have been characterised by what we may term the 'learning turn'. In policy documents emanating from government departments and agencies, in practitioner-oriented texts, in academic debates, the use of the terms 'learning' and 'learner' now seems to be de rigeur, along with references to 'learning society' and 'lifelong learning'. These terms and related phrases contrasts with the earlier vocabulary. Those who were previously referred to as 'trainees', 'students' and so on, are now called 'learners'. What were hitherto regarded as educational and training objectives are now designated as 'learning outcomes'; courses are now 'programmes of learning'; libraries are 'learning centres'. Those who are engaged in the design of educational and training programmes are exhorted to see themselves as 'facilitators' (and sometimes 'managers') of 'the learning process'. How are we to understand such pervasive change in the language of education and training (the latter term now increasingly being replaced by the phrases 'human resource development' and 'learning and development')?

This paper will sketch an attempt at such understanding in two ways. First, the discourse of the learning turn will be examined in terms of its logical and conceptual validity, ie it will be treated as rational discourse. The 'learning paradigm' will be shown to have serious conceptual problems, such that its claim to rationality must be rejected.
Secondly, the discourse will be examined as ideological in character, as part of the social practices by which language constructs and reproduced reality, including identities and social relations. Far from being emancipatory, as claimed by its proponents, the discourse of the learning turn, it will be argued, has oppressive tendencies.

The learning paradigm and learnerism

Articulations of the learning turn may be viewed on a continuum. At one end, the 'weak' form of the learning turn may be seen in discourse adopting the vocabulary of learning merely as a change of style and fashion: the single word 'learning' used in place of more cumbersome phraseology such as 'education and training', or 'education, training and development'. A 'stronger' form is that where the learning turn is presented as a new model (Jessup, 1991) or new paradigm of education and training (Barr and Tagg, 1995, Field, 2000), and/or assertively engage in a 'campaign for learning' (RSA, 1996). Discussing 'the new educational order, Field states that
"a paradigm shift is taking place, away from the ideas of teaching and training and towards the concept of learning."
(Field, 2000)
The authors of one textbook on management development assert that
"The last 20 years have witnessed a transition from management training to management learning."
(Woodall and Winstanley, 1998)
Introducing a 'declaration on learning', a statement agreed upon by what he termed "some of the UK's leading authorities on learning in organisations", Honey states that
"Few can seriously doubt that learning has come of age."
(Honey, 1998)
The declaration itself asserts that learning is 'the central issue for the 21st century. A host of other examples could be adduced to illustrate that the discursive shift from education and training to learning is generally taken to be more than one merely of style, that it is intended to signify substantive issues.

Central and fundamental to the purported new model or paradigm are two key concepts:

Although any particular instance of the occurrence of the learning process may have features particular to the situation, the process itself may be considered in abstracted terms. Such context- and content-free representations of the process, 'learning simpliciter', is depicted in various models, notably that of the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb et al., 1974, Kolb, 1984). By understanding this purported process better, it is assumed, steps may be taken to apply such understanding to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its accomplishment. The process is viewed as located within individual persons, monadic entities, who are ascribed the identity of 'learner' where this term is taken as a nominal, ie a do-er of learning, rather than an adjectival (eg, as in 'learner driver'). Learners, as particular types of persons, may engage in the learning process as an activity, one in which they may engage more effectively by 'learning how to learn'.

The emphasis upon the individual learner is central to what we might regard as the strongest form of discourse following the learning turn, what we might term 'learnerism', or the 'learnerist paradigm'. Learnerism views learning as self-evidently good, both enjoyable and rewarding. So there is a need to encourage everyone to become active and lifelong learners:
"To realise our ambition, we must develop and sustain a regard for learning at whatever age. For many people this will mean overcoming past experiences which have put them off learning."
David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, in Foreword to Government Green Paper on Lifelong Learning: (Department for Education and Employment, 1998)
Learnerism asserts that only the individual learner should determine what she or he should learn, decide how to learn, and judge the effectiveness and value of learning, based on personal experience and personal preferences. The problem is, proponents of learnerism would argue, in line with the second sentence in the above quotation, that learning has become too much associated with formal education and training, which for many people has stultified their capacity and motivation to learn. But learning is natural to humans:
"[d]eep down, we are all learners. No one has to teach an infant to learn. In fact, no one has to teach infants anything. They are intrinsically inquisitive, masterful learners who learn to walk, speak, and pretty much run their households all on their own."
(Senge, 1990)
Richard Reeves, then Director of Futures at the Industrial Society, in his column for the Guardian on 20th February 2001, wrote that
"The only skill we really need is the ability to learn. And we do that best on the job, not in class. [...]
Today, ...we cannot move for teachers of one sort or another - personal trainers, mentors, gurus, consultants. [...] Yet real learning remains a deeply personal experience, and an everyday activity. [...] We learn best from doing, rather than listening. [...]."

One vice-chancellor expressed similar views:
"Students are not empty vessels to be filled with facts, but active, enquiring human beings whose natural curiosity we must harvest. More importantly, we need to redefine our jobs. We academics are not here to teach students, but to show them how to learn."
(Schwartz, 2002)

In practice, these different forms of discourse tend tend to blend together, so that a statement expressing a 'learnerist' view may be found within a text which appears to adopt a more cautious and considered approach. Even many closely-argued academic texts are not immune to generalised statements about the 'naturalness' of learning. Policy and policy-advocacy documents, such as the Green Paper on lifelong learning (Department for Education and Employment, 1998), or the report of the Dearing Committee on higher education (National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, 1997) combine both polemic and reasoned argument.

The learning paradigm as rational discourse: conceptual analysis of learning

Meanings of learning

Insofar as such views are presented as rational discourse, they may be deemed amenable to critical examination on the basis of the conceptual soundness of the key ideas, and of the empirical grounds for accepting the claims made. On both counts, the learning paradigm may be shown to be flawed. Both of the key concepts referred to above, learning as a process and the individual as the locus for learning (the learner), will be shown to be highly problematic.

Textbook discussions of learning often pose the question 'what is learning?', typically answering with some variation on the notion of learning as a more-or-less permanent change of behaviour resulting from experience (Borger and Seaborne, 1966). Such definitional approaches tend to make the crucial assumption that the term 'learning' has unitary denotation. Thus, referring to a number of examples [of learning], Borger and Seaborne ask:
"What is it ...that makes us use the same word 'learning' in every case? What is the common feature?"
(op.cit.: 12`; emphasis added)
Kolb provides a slightly different definition, but one that also presents a unitary denotation:
"Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience."
(Kolb, 1984)
Yet such definitional approaches beg two key questions:

The use of the term 'learning' can be seen in a variety of forms of discourse, including:

Rather than assume synonymity, and search for singular meaning, we should recognise its systematic ambiguity (op.cit.). Heeding Wittgenstein's warning about the "bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language", we should "look and see" how the term 'learning' is used in different contexts (or 'language games') (Wittgenstein, 1953). In particular, we should note the difference between the explanatory use of the term in psychological discourse, and its evaluative use in educational and training discourse (Holmes, 2001a).

Explanatory vs evaluative uses of 'learning'

Learning as an explanatory concept has been central to the development of psychology as a scientific discipline in the last century. The concept was and is used to attempt to explain why particular non-instinctual patterns of behaviour arise in animals and humans, conditioning theory and cognitivism being the dominant paradigms. According to these psychological accounts, such behavioural patterns result from a learning process, which may be examined (it is assumed) according to the hypothetico-deductive and empiricist protocols of natural science. Within such an approach any and every behavioural pattern may be explained by reference to some theory of learning, albeit that the explanation may differ between different theories.

Learning in the above sense is natural, subject to discoverable natural laws. However, on this basis no distinction can be made between learning that is deemed 'good', worthwhile, true and so on from learning that is deemed 'bad', worthless, false. Such normative expressions index a different understanding of learning, and a different use of the term: such understanding and use are central to educational and training discourse, where learning is an evaluative concept. There cannot, therefore, be a (or the) learning process, for natural processes are of a logically different kind from processes by which normative judgements come about.

This distinction between explanatory and evaluative uses enables us to address seeming paradoxes. Take the question of whether it is possible to learn something that is factually wrong or practically ineffective (or worse). For example, can someone learn that the sun, stars and planets move around the stationary earth, or that bloodletting is an effective treatment for fever? It is certain that people in the past have held such a view about the heavenly bodies and have practised bloodletting in order to (try to) cure fever. The explanatory use of the concept of learning would have no problem with accepting that these are examples of learning. Yet if an astrophysics graduate expressed such a view about the sun and earth, or a candidate for a medical internship described bloodletting as an effective treatment, these views would not be accepted as valid learning. Any assertion that learning is good, worthwhile, to be valued, is of a different logical type from a statement that learning is natural. To conflate the two is to commit a category mistake (Ryle, 1949).

It may be argued, in response, that there is no insurmountable problem here. Both meanings can be allowed for as follows. Once normative judgements have been made about what should be learned by an individual or set of individuals, the explanatory theories of learning may be drawn upon to devise some method by which the desired learning can be effectively achieved. And the effectiveness by which the learning is achieved forms part of the criteria for normative judgement, what is termed 'evaluation'. Thus the insights gained through the (scientific) study of learning may be put to use in bringing about desirable learning.

The logical grammar of learning

Such a response rests on the assumption that the concept of learning as a process is of a logical type that allows not merely for post hoc causal explanation but also instrumentally in bringing about specifiable outcomes. But what outcomes do we mean? If we talk of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, or of competencies and capabilities, then we are clearly not referring to empirically observable phenomena. These terms are examples of what Ryle (1954). referred to as 'untechnical concepts' when used in mundane discourse, and 'technical concepts' when used in psychological and pedagogic discourses As technical concepts, they bring 'theoretical luggage' with them so that their meaning can only be ascertained in relation to the theories in which they play a role. It is intellectually unwise to proceed on the assumption that meaning remains stable across these different discourses.

In scientific psychological discourse, the concept of learning outcomes would normally be associated with empirical criteria relating observable behaviour. However, whilst this may be relatively easy in the case of observation of animal behaviour in experimental settings, it is highly problematic in respect of human beahviour. There has been a longstanding recognition by philosophers that human behaviour cannot be understood solely in terms of what is observable: we must also take account of its meaning to the person whose behaviour is under consideration. Taylor (1964) argues that human behaviour cannot be explained in term of natural cause and effect, but only in terms of purpose and teleology. Hamlyn (1953) draws upon Aristotle's distinction between kinesis (translated by Hamlyn as 'movement') and energeia (translated as 'activity'); whilst the former may, sometimes, be analysed and explained solely in causal terms, the latter must always be understood in terms of the actor's reasons. Harr? and Secord (1972) draw a threefold distinction: movements, actions and acts. A movement or set of movements has meaning only insofar as it is intended by an actor to form meaningful action in the performance of an act, as eg in holding up an arm may be an intentional action in hailing a taxi (or waving goodbye, or making a bid at an auction. The relationship between an action and an associated act is not one of cause and effect but of social convention. As any proper account of human behaviour cannot be limited to one of cause and effect, but must include actor intention within a normative order, the relationship between what are termed 'learning process' and 'learning outcome' becomes problematic.

The concepts of the learning process and of learning outcomes have a certain face validity. Each of us is aware of things that we know and understand now, and things we can do now, but which we did not know or could not do at some earlier point in life. Surely the concept of the learning process refers to the process by which we came to know/ be able to do those things? And surely the concept of learning outcomes refers to the states that are the end results of that process? Well, perhaps not: as Wittgenstein points out
"We talk of processes and states and leave their nature undecided. Sometime perhaps we shall know more about them - we think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter."
(Wittgenstein, 1953: 308)
The particular way of looking at the matter here is that expressions of the form 'P has learnt [to] X' describe some state of affairs. However, as the linguistic philosophy tradition of Wittgenstein, Austin, Ryle and others variously showed, description is only one possible logical function of sentences whose grammatical form is an indicative statement. Ryle (1949) argues that utterances concerned with a persons abilities and dispositions are not descriptions about states of affairs that exist within the person, in some Cartesian non-material realm, but rather serve as semi-hypotheticals to license assertions about how we expect or anticipate how that prson would behave under certain (possibly undetermined) circumstances. This analysis may be applied to statements which would normally be categorised as statements of 'learning outcomes' (Holmes, 1998). A fortiori, in contexts where a statement that someone has 'achieved' certain 'learning outcomes', Austin's notion verdictives as a category of performative utterances may be considered (Austin, 1962). Verdictives deliver a finding or judgement, and their perlocutionary effect may be to permit the individual concerned to receive certain benefits: so to state that X has achieved certain learning outcomes may serve to permit the award of a qualification, and/or entry to an occupation or position (Holmes, 2001b). An alternative way of putting this, is that learning outcome expressions provide warranting discourse (Draper, 1988, Toulmin, 1958) in educational and related contexts (Holmes, 2001b).

The concept of the learning process can be examined in a similar fashion. In Ryle's (op.cit.) analysis, an expression of the form 'P is learning X' is not a description of an activity being undertaken by P, ie 'to learn' is not a task verb. Rather, it is better viewed as an achievement or 'success' verb, similar to words such as 'win', 'find', 'cure', 'prove' and so on. To say that S is winning a race is not to describe some additional activity to that of running the race, but rather to say that they are running it in such a way that a certain outcome (that they will win) may be anticipated. Similarly, to say that P is learning X is to say that they are undertaking a certain activity or activities such that we may anticipate that the activities will result in a situation where we would say that they have learnt (Holmes, 1998). We have many task or activity terms relating to learning as an achievement word: 'study', 'read', 'practise', 'rehearse', 'have a go at', 'think about', 'watch and copy', and so on. We also have terms such as 'being taught', being shown', 'receiving instruction' etc. The displacement of such well-established terms by the use of the verb 'to learn' as an activity tends to lead to conceptual confusion.

The foregoing analysis may be considered in terms of its relation to empirical evidence. If we ask what empirical evidence may be adduced to demonstrate that learning outcomes have been achieved, we find that there is no evidence apart from specific observations of performance, or behaviour. However, as discussed above, human behaviour cannot be objectively observed for it requires interpretation as performance-of-a-kind. Moreover, to say that someone has learnt implies that we expect or anticipate that, if called upon, the person would be able to perform in like manner in the future, ie in situations about which by definition we have not made empirical observations. Any evidence we currently have, which itself has been subject to inetrpretation, usually provides the grounds for warranting judgements expressed as statements that learning has occured, and warranting consequential decisions (eg award of qualifications, appointment to a job, etc) (Holmes, 2002). The concept of the learning process presents particular problems in respect of empirical reference: there is nothing amenable to observation that we can say is evidence of such a process. That is, there is no empirical observation that we can make over a continuous period of time that would constitute observation of learning taking place. The analogy is sometimes made with breathing, to suggest that learning is natural: but clearly the analogy fails.

The learning turn as ideological discourse

Despite the logical problems of the discourse of the learning turn, as sketched above, it is clear that it has persuasive power. We therefore now turn to consideration of the discourse as ideological, ie in terms of how it serves to produce and reproduce aspects of what is taken to be reality. Of course, all discourse may be viewed as ideological in terms of what Mannheim called the 'total conception of ideology' (Mannheim, 1936). More strongly, whilst avoiding the simplistic notion of ideology as 'false consciousness', the term 'ideological' draws our attention to the way that discourse functions in promoting or undermining the different interests of different social groups.

How might we attempt the learning turn within the discourse of education and training? To put it another way, how has learning as an 'object of knowledge' been constructed by discursive processes? To understand this we might fruitfully compare it with the case of the rise of the competence movement in the early 1990s. Despite considerable criticism of the validity of the claims made for the competence approach, its rise appeared to be 'irresistable' (Holmes, 1995). An explanation can be found, arguably, in terms of interdiscursivity between the discourses in 'bodies of already formulated meanings', in four areas:
a) political intervention by government;
b) the administrative processes adopted by state (and quasi state) agencies in translating policy into programmatic activity;
c) employment practices within organisations;
d) the processes and practices within educational institutions and agencies. (op. cit.)
The 'discursive convergence' based on the key term 'competence' may, it is suggested here, be seen to have widened to give rise to the new discourse of learning (Holmes, 2001b). We might add to the discourse domains indicated above, that of academic discourse on education and training, particularly where based in humanistic and andragogical perspectives.

The rhetorical presentation of the case for the learning turn often relies upon claims about both its liberatory and its pragmatic potential. A contrast is drawn between what is claimed as the exclusiveness and the authoritarian and oppressive nature of didactic modes of education and training, and the inclusiveness and 'democratic' and empowering potential of the new paradigm. Rather than being the passive recipients of what others have decided should be what is learned and how, learners would be set free to determine for themselves what and how they learn. Personal experience is privileged over the knowledge presented by others. The naturally-occuring learning process, unimpeded by the distorting influence of authoritarian imposition, would ensure that the outcomes meet with the 'real world' needs of learners. The fast-moving nature of life in the 21st century world makes such a move imperative, it is argued, as 'old-world' knowledge rapidly becomes redundant: learning will need to be a lifelong process, and the individual learner will be at the centre.

We may note a number of discursive themes at work here: 'naturalness', 'individualism', 'empowerment', 'inclusiveness', 'democratic'. In contemporary western societies, these have strong positive connotations. Examining the exchange (Dant, 1991) within texts on learning, we may see how certain meanings are constructed through equivalences and negations. Consider the following example, taken from the beginning of the document which launched the RSA's Campaign for Learning:
"Our purpose is to enable every person to develop their human potential as fully as possible by means of lifelong learning. This is because in the 21st century those individuals who do not practise lifelong learning will not find work [...] Learning pays. In a world which increasingly rewards learning, it provides economic, social and personal benefits which are, in principle, available to all."
(Ball, 1996)
We may note the use of the phrase 'to enable every person to develop their human potential', carrying the unstated implication that the alternative (to agreement with the Campaign) is to prevent people from developing their potential. Note how 'learning' and 'lifelong learning' are treated as equivalent, such that individuals can (and, by implication, should) practise lifelong learning.

The author of the text goes on to discuss what he means by the word 'learning', which
"is not intended to be synonymous with conventional education and training. Far from that. [...] Learning includes the products of both education and training, the processes of both formal and informal learning, and the various types of learning: skills, knowledge, understanding, experience, attitude, values. Most importantly, it shifts the emphasis from the activities of the teacher or trainer towards the development of the student."
(op.cit.: 2)
'Learning' is thus not equivalent to 'conventional education and training' which is thereby marginalised. Note that the term 'conventional' is not explicated, setting up the equivalence
education and training == conventional education and training
and so the negation
learning =/= education and training
The final sentence in the selected text sets up the equivalence
emphasis in education and training = emphasis on the activities of the teacher or trainer
By examining the actual texts which present learning discourse to identify the manner in which such equivalences and negations are set up, we might thereby identify how such discourse achieves its effects.

One key word that may be subject to such discourse analysis is 'experience', which has central place in the discourse of the learning turn. In the above quotation, we may note how the word is included in the list of 'various types of learning', presenting experience as equivalent to those others listed as a 'type of learning'. More generally, the discourse of the learning paradigm, and particularly learnerism, sets up an equivalence between "learning from or through experience" and "experiential learning" as a type of learning. Often such references to experience are supported by citation of the work of Kolb (1984), whose model of the 'experiential learning cycle' is presented as a factual description of 'how people learn'. However, examination of such texts, including Kolb's, shows that the term 'experience' appears to be used in two different ways. Kolb opens his first chapter with a quotation from Dewey about "inner experience" as "a realm of purely personal events" (Dewey, 1958). The next reference to experience is on the second page:
"this learning process must be reimbued with the texture and feeling of human experiences shared and interpreted through dialogues with one another."
(Kolb, 1984: 2; emphasis added)
Then, in chapter 2 which has the title 'the process of experiential learning', Kolb presents the 'Lewinian Experiential Model', through which learning is conceived as a four-stage cycle in which
"Immediate concrete experience is the basis for observation and reflection. [...] its emphasis [is] on here-and-now concrete experience to validate and test abstract concepts."
(op.cit.:21: emphasis in original)
Further on, he states that
"Knowledge is continuously derived and tested out in the experiences of the learner."
(op. cit.: 27: emphasis added)

The term 'experience' as generalised, a non-count noun, is thus elided with its use as a count noun ('an experience', 'experiences'). Generally, later re-presentations of the Kolb model use the latter sense: a person has an experience, on which they reflect, etc. Experience in generalised sense is thereby treated as equivalent to the set of separate experiences. Moreover, such separate experiences have independent existence, such that they can be 'observed' and 'reflected on'.

A further aspect of the discourse of learning that we may consider is that of the way that certain subjectivities or identities are set up, or 'interpellated' (Althusser, 1971). The main identity is that of the 'learner', represented as inherently ie naturally capable of engaging in the activity of learning. Subjectivity is instantiated solely in terms of 'the learning process': the person is separated from any social relationships and social structures. Issues of class, gender, ethnicity and so on are, by their absence from the discourse, treated as irrelevant. Because "individuals who do not practise lifelong learning will not find work", as Ball puts it (quoted above), because the benefits from learning are open to all who engage in learning, the identity of learner carries moral force. If you do not accept the need to engage in the learning process, then any failure to reap the benefit is your own fault; and by rhetorical implication, if you fail to gain the personal, social and economic benefits, that is because you failed to learn. In many ways, the social Darwinist rhetoric of the late 19th century may be seen to have its latter-day reflection in the discourse of the learning turn.

A second identity constructed by the learning discourse is that of the teacher (or trainer), a type of person who is now seen as a key participant in outmoded, oppressive practices of education/ training. Redemption from condemnation may be sought by a change of subjectivity to that of 'facilitating' learning. Through various discursive practices, teachers are encouraged to demonstrate that they are embracing this new identity, and rejecting the old one. In many universities, course or module descriptions require presentation of 'learning outcomes', 'learning strategy'; assessment details are to be presented in a form that relates to the 'learning outcomes'. New teachers in higher education now normally undergo some form of initial programme, usually carrying a title with the phrase 'learning and teaching in higher education'. Often such a programme will be accredited by the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, and are assessed by 'portfolios' in which the new teacher will be required to 'reflect on' their attempts to 'facilitate learning'. Through such programmes, a new generation of teachers in higher education is being socialised into a system in which the notion of the learning process is central. If they are successful in becoming good facilitators of learning, and students (now 'learners') play their part by engaging in active learning, then higher education will be successful. In this scheme, other matters, such as the provision of appropriate resources, student access to finance, social and educational conditions experienced prior to university entrance, and the inequitable field of post-graduation employment opportunity, are of minor significance.

Beyond the learning paradigm

The considerations sketched above indicate a need to move beyond the individualistic, psychologistic representations of the phenomena addressed by notions of learning, education and training. In particular, greater recognition is required that these phenomena are social in character. Moreover, a proper account must give due recognition to their situated nature. Approaches to situated learning theory, particularly the legitimate peripheral participation approach of Lave and Wenger (1991) are gaining in recognition. However, there is a tendency to present such an approach as a corrective supplement to conventional presentations, limiting the contribution to the supposed need to include 'social factors'. This is not sufficient to address the problems with the learning paradigm as discussed above.

Rather than consider learning as a phenomenon in its own right, albeit 'taking place' in social contexts, we need to examine the social processes by which the discourse of learning constructs identity and reproduces social practices (Holmes, 2001b). Learning is not in itself an empirical phenomenon, and cannot be understood through empirical analysis. Rather, taking a phenomenological reduction approach, we need to examine how various social processes are intimately connected with the trajectories of individual human beings through the kinds-of-persons that are afforded in contemporary and emerging society, and the social practices that are salient in the particular social contexts for such kinds-of-persons. Only then can we avoid the corruption of the emancipatory potential of the discourse of learning.


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